|Backstage at Maloney Hall, Catholic University 1975|
November 15, 2017
Today is your birthday. I’d be calling you today, and probably sending you a video or something that I think was funny, maybe it'd make you laugh. If you were having a “good” day, you may even call me first. You’d loudly make a stentorian declaration that was joyous as it was absurd about another year in a long life. Anyone who knows you can fill in that blank.
That’s what’s easy about this: so many folks loved you and knew you. They’re closing their eyes, probably wiping them, right now because yours was a personality that was easy to conjure, easy to love, easy to celebrate. They’re hearing right now, because yours was “the big voice, that leaves little choice”. You’ll always reverberate. I’m happy for that.
But I’m also very, very sad. Because you were my best and oldest friend in this world until you left. Yes, our families know us and love us, thank God…but 12 year old buddies? Forget it—we knew SO MUCH about one another, for SO LONG.
I never apologized for our regressive goofball behavior because why should I? There was too much information there for us NOT to return to high school, where I think we may have been the happiest. Everything thereafter—what we did and didn’t share—was too copious a lot to haul into our every moment. It was the world we all are forced to confront, and it’s not always easy. It actually very seldom is.
There’s something I never told you, Mike. I didn’t because I hadn’t realized it as the truth until after you were gone. I trust that you may have known nevertheless, in fact, I’m sure you did on some level because you were so smartly observant and sensitive to others’ feelings.
Let me explain. From the earliest I can remember until right before my father died, I was a fairly happy kid. My parents and my siblings made me feel special, the world was playful and interesting and I felt that I had some special ways that I could make people feel good. They all had a good time and made a big deal when I played and sang, or danced and performed in stage musicals. I felt that I “knew my calling” pretty early, I think.
You had that early childhood, too! You were bright and brave (braver than I) and the grown ups and other kids alike, for the most part, found you entertaining, helpful, and jovial to be around.
But you and I had yet to meet. I was in Fredericksburg playing in my first bands, in early school operettas and in talent shows. You were more or less doing the same sorts of things in Springfield.
When I was nine years old, though, my Dad got sick and stayed sick for a long while. My younger sister and I were young enough to compel the others to keep from us the harsher aspects of what it would portend until the end. I didn’t know he “wouldn’t make it” until the day before, and my sister didn’t until the day he died.
After that, things got complicated and in many ways worse than before.
Needless to say, things weren’t easy for us, and our Mom, especially. A good and consoling friend to her soon after died abruptly, we had a chronic prowling peeping tom at our house plus a fellow assigned to me from the Big Brothers Association turned out to be a pedophile who indeed kidnapped another kid the following year. And the Viet Nam era was raging with its assassinations, riots and transformative madness.
When we moved from Fredericksburg to DC in Jan ’69, we stayed in my grandparents’ house in NW Washington and my sister and I were the “new kids” at a parochial school in the neighborhood.
It was a long, cold and sad winter. The kids—in my class, at least—weren’t very welcoming to the kid who some “thought was a hick” for his “southern accent”. The big deal “boogie woogie” boy in small town Va. was to most there in DC, a personae non grata. That really hurt, because I was more than ready for a happier next chapter to begin for me and my decimated family.
Mike, we still hadn’t met, but soon I would SEE you for the first time.
That May my mother enticingly informed me that she and I would that weekend be attending the Spring Musical production at Bishop Ireton High School. My cousins Steve and Tim Sheehy were in the pit orchestra, and BI enjoyed a sterling reputation for high quality productions. I’d be attending there the next year, and I was holding out hope that all it had to offer, according my Mom, wasn’t more mere hype. (She had tried, bless her, but living right off of Tenley Circle kinda sucked--barely skate-able sidewalks, a library and the biggest Sears store up the block not withstanding. I was also at that point suffering symptoms of PTSD from the last year and a half in Fredericksburg).
We drove to Alexandria, and my mind raced the entire way. The show was Mame, and you played Patrick Dennis, the kid. I had been in a couple of school shows, had seen a few, but THIS was the BEST I’d ever seen, the music sounded top notch, the singing, the acting…and YOU were spectacular. You sang and danced, acted believably, projected articulated zeal. It was a true thrill!
I learned that you were allowed to audition even though you were an 8th grader. You were awarded the part since you would be a Freshman there the next year (like me !), you had a brother there already, and two more to follow, and you were so blatantly and perfectly qualified for the role. Of course you were, I thought, and I was transfixed with an anxious excitement for the near future for the first time in what felt like ages.
A month later I looked for you in vain at the language aptitude test night. It was great knowing that ALL of the kids would be new there, but I was still pensive about this new scenario—but man, that show was great, and where IS that guy?!
We finally moved to our new house in Alexandria for which we’d left Fredericksburg, and the first day of high school arrived. You had to be there somewhere, but there were so many kids everywhere, I thought perhaps we’d be lost to one another among the masses of long hair, sneakers, ties, corduroys and desert boots.
It was the second day of school that I heard a commotion up ahead in the main foyer of the school. “Aw, MAN…” a familiar voice crowed, “…come ON, you guys…gimme a break!”
Wild laughter erupted from the gaggle of older guys who had—for the second or third time—just batted all of your books out of your arms and onto the floor. “What?? Little Cotterrrrr!?” one taunted. “Get your brother to help!!” Tommy, your brother, was a Senior whom I’d soon later see straddling the bannister at the top of the stairs and winging a hefty book pretty damned hard down the stairs at someone. I'm not sure if it related to little brother's episode, but I like to think so.
It was chaos amid the rush of boys headed to their next class. You didn't push back, strike out or call names, but merely let them and that pass until you had the time and room to finally pick up your spilled stuff.
I helped you, and you thanked me. I told you that I’d seen you in Mame the prior Spring and that you sure were great. “Aw man, REALLY??” you said and introduced yourself. I did the same, and said that I had been in shows, too. But you wanted to talk about music, said you had a classical guitar, but wanted a nicer steel string one. I mentioned that I played, and you said, again “REALLY? You play? Man, we should have a duo!”
That’s how I remember it, Mike…it was that quick. The next day we played and sang together, and it was as if that was always the reason that we had come there. At the time, modular scheduling was somewhat experimental--students could arrange their classes and schedules to foment huge blocks of continuous “study” time, which was time NOT in class. A,B,C,D,E & F days. Your schedule coincided with mine on E, “togetherness day”, and we’d hang and rehearse wherever we could find a space or stairwell.
Mike, you and I and most folks looking over our shoulder at this letter know everything that happened after that, since then and what it meant, the things to which our friendship would lead, but I never thanked you for being the first person to turn the page from a few really bad, sad and seemingly interminable laboring chapters of a kid's life to the next happier, more exciting and rewarding chapters that led all the way to this moment I’m gratefully appreciating right now.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to share something else about you with everyone:
When we graduated—after so many adventures both personal and professional throughout our high school years—and college--that great Sword of Damocles of the growing adolescent-- loomed above us like a great interrupter of all our most appetizing dreams. You would be going to Catholic University and I to Miami University in Coral Gables. We both lamented the interruption and our separation, but held out hope that my Miami University deal with my mother wouldn’t work out and I would be back in the Spring to pick up where we left off—doing shows, writing songs, opening for big acts in big halls by ourselves and with Bill & Taffy and others. Mostly, Cotter & Carroll would resume and not falter in DC.
I hated it in Miami. There were no clubs in Coral Gables, just a juke joint a few miles away that had 50 cent 7 and 7s on Wednesdays. Mostly all I did was play piano, sing and write by myself in cramped rehearsal rooms on campus. Circled on my calendar was Oct 26th, when I’d be flying home so you and I could join Bill & Taffy for their set at DAR Constitution Hall, opening for Jackson Brown. It was in fact a magical evening, when Jay Winding, Jackson’s sideman convinced me that THIS was what I should be doing, that college wasn’t for everyone, and that I’d have time to get back to it if it didn’t pan out, but he thought that it WOULD. I decided that night that I’d return from Florida after the semester, one way or another.
After repairing back to Miami and in the worst kind of funk, I thought that I might not last until then. About a week later, Bill & Taffy phoned to propose an idea: come back to DC, but stay in school by enrolling at nearby Catholic University. And, would I be interested in rehearsing a few songs as a group—a singing group. The group would be Bill, Taffy, Margot Chapman and me. I said sure, are you kidding?
No, they weren’t, but I was asked to not mention it to anyone for fear that word might get out too soon, and that could be a bad thing for a few good reasons. I reluctantly agreed.
You were so excited, and I was too--I was coming back, and we'd both be at CU, no better.
But there was more to this picture than I could divulge and that was difficult, awkward and I thought somewhat unfair. My promise would be broken within a week on the night I showed up at your door at Spaulding Hall dormitory with a bottle of Stoly.
I explained it all, sheepishly, shamefully and contritely. It wasn’t that Cotter & Carroll would be handcuffed from doing our thing, but this other thing was very much on the platter, too.
“Oh…” you halted for thought. I sat and watched your eyes dart about with your high-velocity thoughts and braced for understandable anger, disappointment and indictments of my betrayal.
“Wait a minute, so, you, Bill and Taffy and Margot—that hot chick from Breakfast Again?—that’s kind of cool, huh!?”
“Yeah, I guess”, that aspect was indeed exciting I supposed and concurred.
“Wow…” Another pause…here it comes, I thought.
—“Man! I can’t WAIT to hear THAT, man! That’s gonna be FUCKING AMAZING!”
I sat amazed and grateful and a little less ashamed for my silent period of non-disclosure, but mainly I realized what a true friend is. You were more psyched than I, about something that would ultimately mean the end of our duo. We would always play gigs, you and me, you and Margot, me sitting in with your band and vice versa, but it never crossed your mind that our friendship was threatened. I was prepared to lose and lose again, but you flipped the polarity switch masterfully. This was a GOOD thing. It was a win-win. I had never admired anyone more than you at that moment.
Your “up” side was the most buoyant lift that I could ever imagine.
It was a constant, a lighthouse that was always on and spinning above a churning coastline. Nothing could deter or reset your positive compass, your proactive enthusiasm. We started with the simplicity of doing something we loved that we could trust would always be there, and ended by having the thing that was simply always there. Love and Friendship.
Mike, I was aware early on of your chronic attenuators, how you could be profoundly hobbled during those emotional valleys, but you muscled through them countless times. I hope folks will remember and appreciate just how many times you soldiered through the darkness so bravely.
A few years ago, when the two of us were going over some parts in a dressing room before John Jenning’s fundraiser finale, you were so tenuously there—I looked up from the page to see an expression on your face that I thought was surely your goofing at me like so often, only to realize that you were desperately reaching to the bottom of your stores of stability for a gasp of fuel and strength. I know if it weren’t that particular reason for which we were all there--for John--that you wouldn’t have been. You would have been in the place where “misery doesn’t know better times” until a sunnier day dawned.
You were BRAVE, Mike.
And you had so much love for your friends, for your family. We all know how utterly ironclad your resolve was when it was time to be there, when we really needed you.
I just need to know that somehow you’re aware of your profound meaning in my life. I need everyone else to know, as well. The day we met was Day 1 of the rest of my life. I wasn’t at all certain that things would ever start to work out, then you were there. Like a lighthouse. A life preserver. You’re my oldest and dearest friend and I’m just now beginning to contend with your being gone. I miss you so so much, and I know it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I hope I see you later, somehow, some way.
My last conversation with you was on July 1, and we talked about all sorts of things. Mostly you were just erupting with joy and enthusiasm over your Summer with Georgia, her studio project and how wonderful a person Lisa was. You told me how much you missed sister Christine, how she lured you lovingly over to her house and laid books on you all the time. Gratitude gushed from you that night. No one appreciated good will more than you, Mike.
You exclaimed again that you “never talk on the phone this long with anyone!” and we laughed alot and loudly.
Then you told me you had just finished an “amazing” book—James Agee’s A Death In The Family.
“That’s one of my favorite books of ALL TIME”, I spat. “Meredith had seen it somewhere and thought I might like it and, wow...”
“It’s UNBELIEVABLE.” We spoke of it being brilliant, how it managed to decode the shock of an untimely death through the eyes of a child. I mused of how the brakes failed on the car in the story, how the accident left nary a mark but a just a slight cut on the bridge of the victim’s nose, as I remembered.
You chimed something abruptly that was at first garbled.
“A Cotter pin!! It was a COTTER PIN!” You loudly exclaimed.
You couldn't stop. “Do me a favor…read just the last ten pages—it’s amazing—just read the last ten pages.”
Happy Birthday, Mike. I wish you could come back, even for a day. Visit us in a dream, OK? We're waiting.
~Me (insert any of your nicknames for me here)
|From the BI-Word, March 1972|
Below are some notes and perhaps some insights that I had prepared in case I had the chance to speak at Mike’s Memorial:
We wake each morning to gravity. We usually don’t consciously address it—we merely rise, get up somehow, greet and get at a day wherein we’ve mostly learned to ignore the utterly inescapable and inexorable force—that constant reminder that the center of the earth wants us.
We do it, day after day after day, because we manage to somehow find a reward. We’re fortified with purpose and we see to our dedicated endeavors until we get there— a sigh, a laugh, some measure of gratification, a prize that’s a degree measure of a larger elation. We defy the gravity that has never—will never—let go, leave us alone. Its tenacity is ancient, its origins only a distant cry of unfathomable forbearance.
It’s quite possibly the first worldly in utero sensation we have. It’s our oldest companion, friend and foe.
Some find aid and splice in a skewed perspective, something that makes the challenge ahead look approachable, do-able, manageable.
We feel we’re in a vessel upon rough waters, and the deck is coated with renegade rolling marbles. Or maybe tumbling rolling tubes which won’t rest until they come to rest. Where gravity puts them. We clamor sometimes desperately toward something to which we can cling—a rare slab of stability where we can regroup and refresh. This ride is even thrilling, maybe…perilous…we don’t worry about the landing but …
We grow and come to realize that the vessel is just an illusion. We are and have always been completely IN the water.
We rise, fall, gasp, hold our breath, become completely submerged…all the while the current carries us.
Like the naturally wise adult salmon we see or feel reason to battle our way upstream …against the most tenacious and inexorable currents…to our natal homelands. Some of us need to do that regularly and some early on realized that they would need to remain close to their beginnings.
Whether a boat, a fish, a bird, a man…we as Neil Young puts it “collide with the very air we breath”.
We make bolstered runs up against the very wind we need to fill our sails, to lift our wings. We swim upstream to survive, in the very water that will sustain us and our offspring.
The moments where we can merely relax and enjoy the ride are seemingly few and far between.
Our futures are nagging entities in need of building, planning, providing for the future. The future steals much of the present, wouldn’t you agree? And much of our concerns, cares and conundrums reside in not so tidy compartments tucked well within the family home on the back side of that welcome mat.
Our friends, our families, our fellow humans are in need, and we draw many lines to sort out for whom and to what we choose to see.
There are those among us who find their calling within the framework of rescue, companionship, care giving—the immediate alleviation of another’s pain and suffering, are they are lucky…for they have the instant gratification of immediately improving the well-being of another.
Alas, there are those among us who aren’t personally rewarded by an altruistic spirit. They don’t get a rush, they only get slightly inconvenienced.
What Mike and I had in common, I think, and what has also been a frustration of sorts is that our spirits, whatever our gifts and tools that we bring as entertainers, are usually gifts of joy, mollification, relief, inspiration. Plus we usually love doing it while we’re doing it. We bring a release, maybe some elation, some healing if we’re lucky and we dig it while we’re doing it. A win win.
If only it were that simple. Art reacts, it reflects, it even thankfully deflects…rock and roll, it doesn’t solve our problems, it just allows us to dance all over them for a while. The hard realities and the hard work still stare at us coldly when we return to the churn.
As much as he may have appeared to be the typical exemplary middle class fence painting lawn mowing suburbanite male (which he was, in at least those respects) Mike didn’t believe in the paint by numbers life.
What conforming to convention Mike managed to do was voluntary, or discretely begrudging. By discrete, I mean to say he was polite and considerate of others’ feelings, respectful of others’ RIGHT to have their own beliefs. BUT, one large ethos of our friend, what he DID NOT believe in, was passing himself and his beliefs off disingenuously. Mike was not a hypocrite. He loathed hypocrisy, yet he did not loathe the hypocrite. He understood THEIR plight. That was their “cross to bear”. But he was highly unnerved when one expected him to go along with the motions, the ceremony, the pageantry of and about something he truly knew in his heart he DID NOT BELIEVE.
And when a scabrous policy on high reached indiscriminately down to affect the under-privileged, the under-served, and the under-informed, well…here we are and we know how Mike felt about that.
He was of this world, but his boyish enthusiasm for the weird, the wild, the wonderful was couched in an old soul’s discerning insight into much much deeper philosophical issues.
Cognitive dissonance and dishonesty came into play only when he needed to cover his rear end to keep from shame. From shaming himself or his family and friends.
In his affairs, his relationships, his dealings, I never knew Mike to EVER be—in even the slightest way— underhanded or deceptive out of avarice or spite.
In this way, and in so many others, Mike was so very brave. He was brave to choose to always be true to his heart. He knew how much work that would require. The currents he would come up against within and without.
So many of us need to adhere to some existing code to help us determine our paths, decisions, battles. We turn to sacraments, commandments, societal and familial expectations. That’s our culture, and it includes multitudes of other cultures big and small, heirloom and nascent.
I think Mike was up against those deliberations ALL THE TIME, for he thought for himself. That should make all of us even more appreciative of those times when he went the extra mile, or yard or footstep to be where he knew he counted most. To be there for someone else. To put in the good word. To refrain from a personally derogatory one. To be a cheerleader. A fan. A friend.
To not be petty. To see to the other side of a sticking point and move on. Michael looked to see the diamonds in the rough. Ironic, but true. Between the two of us, I heard from him scads more pep talks than he ever heard from me.
The truth is that none of us have any of the sure answers. Well we have some. That money changes everything. That it’s better to have it than to need it.
We hold other answers in our hearts. It’s better to love than to hate. It’s better to try to see someone’s perspective, or at least respect that one’s perspective, whatever it may be, is inarguable. At least try to understand. If Mike and I were Jem and Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird we’d have spent more time than they on Boo Radley’s porch.
Mike’s Spiritual Creed: Be good for goodness’ sake. These approaches are better. Not because we give them 4 out of 5 stars, but because we should give them 9 out of 10 nods. We should affix them like pocket watches in folds nearest to where there is the least sunshine. We should WORK to be BETTER. Then we’ll ALL be doing better, a little closer to all doing well.